Not just her former hands, but the whole scaffolding of the skeleton in front of her had become a Jenga tower whose crucial block had been pulled away from the bottom
Editor’s Note: The following story by Hsin-Hui Lin 林新惠 is part of a notebook Queer Time, co-edited by Ta-wei Chi and Ariel Chu, which gathers contemporary queer Taiwanese literature in translation. To read the full Queer Time collection, visit its home here.
To read Ye (Odelia) Lu’s English translation, click here.
She thought it was just an itch, but now the whole patch of skin was peeling off.
More precisely, the skin on the back of her right hand was lifted by the motion of her scratching, along with every layer of muscle beneath. She tore the piece of flesh away and it did not hurt or tingle; there was not a single blotch of blood, as if she had only peeled off a chip of an eggshell. Through the sunken indent about the size of a stamp, she could see her own bone and the stratum of fractured human skin around it. As her fingers stretched, those perceivable muscles and tendons jerked with them. She tried to insert the peeled flesh back into place, only for it to fall off when she turned over her hand.
The shard of meat landed on the plastic bag of braised pork she had just gotten from a night market, sticking to the edge of the bag and overlooking the slices of pigskin left inside. It made her somewhat nauseated. What was going on? Should she go to the ER? Or should her left hand take a picture of her right, upload it, and seek help from people on Facebook? Should she DM someone? Names of people crossed her mind, some of whom she met every now and then, but somehow no one seemed reliable enough at a moment like this. Mixed feelings gushed up to her throat and started brewing on the tip of her tongue; she wanted to call someone, anyone, anyone who was closest to her. Shapeless cries clogged her breath, and her gaze scanned the room until it fell opposite the coffee table, onto the anchorwoman in the rectangle of the TV screen. That was the person closest to her, who kept her company every night at eight as she consumed instant noodles and the side dishes she picked up from the streets on her way home.
A sigh escaped her like the air from a deflating balloon. There were always moments like this that made her more aware than ever that she was eating alone. Not just eating alone, but also boiling water with a single pot and throwing in the noodles, the seasoning packets, and a few pieces of leafy greens before sitting down at the coffee table, turning on the TV, and digging her chopsticks straight into a plastic bag of street takeout. Never arrange the food on a plate, never bother to fix things up—the more lavish they looked, the emptier they were. She still remembered her fortieth birthday not long ago, when she had purposefully gotten off work early, gone grocery shopping, and made herself a meal of one soup, one meat entrée, and two veggie dishes. Warm, white steam from the rice cooker had engulfed her face when she’d popped open the lid, and a tear, coming from a place unbeknownst to her, had rolled down her chin. A habitual vigilance had made her wipe it away quickly before she’d grabbed her phone, taken a picture, typed “Once a year, cooked a nice meal for myself,” picked the feeling “blessed,” and uploaded the post to Facebook. She had received a hundred likes and countless birthday wishes that had taken her more than a night to respond to.
With the chip of flesh shoved aside for now, she poured the remaining soup and noodles into the plastic bag. Though the confusion and uneasiness persisted, she suddenly felt that rather than trying to figure out what had happened to her, cleaning up the leftovers seemed to be a more reassuring necessity. Even so, when she turned on the faucet, she couldn’t help but wonder: was it a wound? What would happen if a bone-deep wound got wet?
So she went downstairs to the convenience store and found some gloves. At the checkout, she deliberately hid her right hand in her coat pocket while her left reached for the receipt. She cast a glance at the clerk, and one look was more than enough to freeze her on the spot.
There was no skin on the entire region of the young boy’s neck, only bones. Like hers, the surface of the wound was oddly clean. She imagined that the boy, too, probably hadn’t known what to do with the ring of neck meat that had stripped off by itself.
The boy read her eyes. He shook his head and pointed to the joints turning this way and that. “It happened all of a sudden. I was putting on my uniform for the shift today and it just”—he made a ripping gesture—“fell off my neck like that. Man, I thought I was gonna die.”
She nodded blankly, picturing what she would have done if it hadn’t been a small piece of her hand that she’d just lost, but rather something similar to the boy’s scenario. “It looks okay though, like, no big deal if it gets wet. The water’ll just run down the bones and—” his finger traced the joints and arrived at the flat, horizontal plain above his clavicles. “Flow through this surface and go elsewhere.”
So she’d gotten the gloves for nothing. But an unexpected onset of gratitude took hold of her: she was glad that she lived by herself in cramped downtown Taipei, and that no matter how much her sublet studio was hemmed in by the dim alleyways, the eternally lit convenience store was only a few steps away. Such a place sometimes allowed her to cobble together a casual meal, and sometimes, like today, let her bump into a convenience store boy in his early 20s—someone whose life was so far away from hers, but who was sharing such a similar experience. The mere understanding of this relieved her a great deal.
She tucked the gloves away and washed the dishes, all the while not sensing anything in particular on the back of her right hand. Seeing that the boy had been telling the truth, she felt a little more relieved. After sealing the fragment of flesh in a mason jar, she lay on the bed and stared at her hand raised in the air. Perhaps tomorrow this phenomenon would cover every inch of the news pages, and clickbait links titled “Has a chunk of meat fallen off your body? Medical professionals reveal the top five reasons” would be everywhere on Facebook. She pursed her lips lightly and fell into an untroubled sleep.
Yet the following day came around the same as yesterday, like a well-functioning cog. The anchorwoman for the morning news, different from the one last night, was missing a part on her right cheek—exposing the cheekbone—despite bearing an expression that betrayed nothing unusual. The delivered news was almost identical to that from last night, featuring exclusively boring content that could only be found on Taiwanese news channels—dashcam recordings, vivid descriptions of Internet rumors, restaurants’ reports on various advertising strategies—only missing the news about anyone’s body losing a lump of meat. When commuting, she paid extra attention to her surroundings: the woman sitting across from her was not so much dosing off with her face propped up by her right hand as she was holding her teeth and facial bones in place. A man in a suit standing nearby stretched his left arm, and a fleshless wrist poked out of the cuff. The watch he wore had its strap buckled to the tightest hole, yet it still hung loosely from the bone with a shifting weight that drew the watch’s face downward, so that the man had to raise his wrist to read the time from below. Nonetheless, the Taipei metro was its usual self—the cars were filled to the brim with office workers’ silent fatigue and reluctance, the only sounds being the incessant ring of arrival announcements and reminders about offering seats to others and prohibited behaviors like eating or drinking. In the clean, bright metro car, in the waking, blurry-eyed city, something seemed to have happened, and yet nothing seemed to have happened. A sense of normalcy and nonchalance ironed out the wrinkles in her heart, loosening the grip of her left hand on her right.
It was not until she arrived at the sky-high office building in Xinyi District, walked into the office, scanned her fingerprint on the employees’ biometric time clock, pulled back, and saw the skin of her right thumb stuck to the machine, that she grew nervous again. She tore the piece of skin down and stuffed it into her pocket. Suddenly, instead of worrying about the additional loss of skin, she wondered how she could punch in for work if there was no more flesh left on all of her fingertips.
Thoughts like that distracted her as she replied to clients’ emails, prompting her to switch tabs and land on Facebook. The scrollbar kept rolling down and down and passing many selfies taken by her friends. She realized from the photos that her friends’ scissor hands, two fingers making peace signs, had long since become two thin, bare bones. And Facebook—being Facebook—had already read her confusion and responded with sponsored ads: “Click to reclaim your original self!” The image showed the frontal view of a woman whose skin and flesh on the left face were all gone; only a lone eye remained. The woman cradled a head model in her arms; its left face was exactly the one the woman had lost, minus the eyeball that was still intact on the woman’s body. The model’s half-face was only a shape, lacking character, similar to the face of a shop window mannequin.
From the page that popped up, she learned that these were lifelike mannequins designed for people with fallen flesh so that the latter could paste their skin and muscle onto the corresponding parts of the former. Once put on, the flesh would never come off, and every tissue would align seamlessly with each together. There were multiple body types available, or you could purchase a part separately. For instance, to combat her punch-in situation, there was a thumb model; customers only needed to press the flaked-off skin onto the model, bring it to work, and enjoy a smooth, carefree scan. If you paid extra, you could even have a hole drilled in at one end of the model. “Why not add it to your keychain? Easy to carry, hard to forget!” the item description went.
So she shifted between client emails and the mannequin website; when statistical reports strained her eyes, she clicked the mouse here and there on the website, looking at models; while eating lunch, she attentively went through the payment, shipping, and return terms; after dinner—and a sudden realization that she might no longer be able to use facial masks in the near future—she unwrapped a mask from the stocks she’d gotten during the brand’s anniversary sale. As a blanket of cool liquid essence fit onto her skin, she opened her laptop, entered the website, and added a model to the cart.
What followed was a long-winded list of information to fill out: height, weight, arm length, torso length, leg length, foot length… The supplier would deliver the most fitting model based on each customer’s physique. She filled everything out in order, measuring herself with sewing tape and utter honesty; she did not really expect that her model—who would have her own skin glued on top—could have the body of those celebrities in commercials. Except she was not honest enough, or perhaps she was too honest, so much so that she could not shake off the fleeting idea that crossed her mind at the last question. As someone who had never dated a man, she ticked the box that marked “Male” under the section for sex.
The moment she confirmed the order, she broke into a half-smile, not noticing the mask prickling her skin after being left on for too long. After all those lonesome days she could not see the end of, here finally came a man who would be by her side from this moment onward.
The doorbell for delivery rang a week later. She opened the door, signed for the package, slid a utility knife over the tape, and flipped open the cardboard lids. A man of her height stood in front of her. In the past week, she had bought some clothes for the man while she had shed more skin. The tear on the back of her hand had crawled all the way to her shoulder in one direction and threatened to uproot her nails in the other, leaving bones to be the only things discernible on her arm and the back of her hand. She was oblivious to this change, even in good spirits, for she could finally—in a gentle manner—fix the flesh onto the man’s arm and the back of his hand. She wrapped both hands around his upper arm as if caressing him and, at the same time, nursing herself. The different degrees of strength she exerted onto her fingers became the sculpting force that formed the curves of the man’s muscle. She pressed the fallen flesh from her right thumb onto his now plump hand, cocooning his thumb, and let him make the mark of her own fingerprints in the palm of her hand. She raised the model slightly taller with a cushion so that her face could rest on his left chest, where she closed her eyes and listened: two people, one heartbeat.
With the man’s right arm in her left, she studied both bodies in the mirror, fully conscious of what was going to happen: the less skin remained on her, the more complete he would be. So what; she had bones, he had flesh, they shared two eyes and one heart; when everything was finished, they would be the most beautiful couple in the whole wide world. She fixed her hair and took a snapshot of her cheek pillowed on his arm, uploaded it to Facebook, and tabbed on the feeling “loved” for the post. It got over two hundred likes.
With the man in her life now, her footsteps grew lighter and lighter every day; she learned to stop wondering whether it was a lightness in her mind or a lightness in her flaking self. She developed a new routine of coming home after work, turning on the switch, and letting the light illuminate the living room as well as the sight of the man’s gradual completion. She no longer dragged herself to prepare dinners that were more or less the same, but rushed to his side as soon as she walked through the door and gently attached the bits of herself that had come off that day onto him. The rip on her body traveled like a slithering snake, from the arm to the top of the right clavicle, and then unfurled: upward, it tore apart the right side of her face, scalp, and hair before turning to the back of her head, neck, shoulder, and back; downwards, it passed her right breast, abdomen, thigh, calf, sole of the foot, and her heel, hip… parts of her body had all stripped off one after another. These two tributaries eventually merged at the back of her waist. It was as if there were a dotted line at the center of her body, predetermined and printed neatly, along which someone was cutting her right flank off.
The man’s right, on the other hand, took form along the same line. Of course, she did not neglect their physical differences. When she gave a firm push downward, the excessive flesh on the man’s overly thick breasts began to sag, resembling a slow wave that advanced toward his lower body. Seeing this, she let go of her hands, and the flesh, containing her residual strength, gradually enclosed the model’s translucent reproduction of male genitalia before coming to a halt. She watched with satisfaction as her man became a man; her left hand, still possessing all of its skin, stroked him so softly that the sensation almost seemed phantom. It then climbed up along the texture of his skin, drawing lines only she recognized. The strapping chest and abdomen with an exact amount of burliness, the upright shoulders, collar bone, Adam’s apple… her fingers paused at the right half of the man’s lips, the only half that existed. Standing on tiptoe, she hooked onto his neck and brought him lower, before her remaining left face approached his newborn one. A pair of lips reached another. She kissed the man and kissed herself.
Her first kiss at the age of forty, though it was also the last. When she let go, her lips came loose from her face along with her left cheek up to the ear; they were all ripped off by the sickly sweetness of this first kiss. Once these fragments went onto his face, the man gave the impression of smiling at her. Her fingers brushed past his full lips; that was the man’s first body part—except for the genitals—that was complete.
From then on, what she lost became what made the man full. Her left scalp peeled off, and the man inherited a cascade of hair, its tips touching his shoulders; she trimmed it short for him. The skin on her left shoulder came stripping off and became a part of the man’s full, broad back. She could feel her now-skeletal face grinning when it met his, yet it wasn’t until she raised her phone for a selfie that she remembered a skull did not have any expression to begin with. After transferring her left torso to the man, she shoved the flesh downward like she had last time. The layer of skin that swaddled his organs turned thicker, looking as if they had grown a little bigger, more imposing. She felt sheepish at the sight, although her blush failed to materialize into color against the ghastly white of her bones.
Later on, the man began to own a left leg, then a left upper arm, lower arm, back of the left hand, little finger, ring finger, middle finger, and index finger. The last time she clocked out of work, she removed the left thumb flesh that clung to the biometric machine and, instead of leaving the office, marched back towards her seat. She applied for a vacation through the HR system, cashing in the days she had been saving up all at once. She noticed recently that those colleagues who had turned into full-scale skeletons had all been like this, either taking a break or quitting, never to be seen again. During the evening rush hour, she descended from the Xinyi District high-rise to the metro beneath and, amidst jostling with the crowd, discovered that it was not skin that everyone was rubbing against each other, but bones. Bones rattled against bones, producing a hollow sound like that of a pitchless xylophone, drowning out the underground platforms. A whole city full of people in their skeletal frames, expressions and shapes gone with the disappearance of skin and flesh; the only things left behind were the eyeballs in their sockets, rolling to perceive their surroundings, yet at a loss. There was no sign of collective panic even though this strange thing had happened to so many people, no disbelief, no fear whatsoever. The metro pulled into the station, and all the peculiarities were flattened into day-to-day normality. She entered the car, sandwiched between the clattering percussion of bones on bones, before being startled by her reflection—except for the variation in height, she could barely tell herself apart from the rest of the passersby that had become raw skeletons. She wondered whether others also kept a secret replica of themselves at home or, like her, nestled in the arms of a self that was not their own.
When she arrived home, she pieced the last bit of flesh onto the man. The night breeze swept in, and she could feel its crisp temperature and hear the steady, marching tick of the clock. The man was complete. This thought hammered her heart. She drove the man’s left thumb into her palm in the same manner as before, not sure if the faint thudding came from the bare bones on her hand or the solid bulk of meat that was now the man’s thumb. But she was ever-so-wary not to fantasize about the man beginning to move from the moment of his completion. That was the stuff of fairy tales, and she knew better than anyone that she was living in a reality where she was being eroded every second. It was just that, now that she had been gnawed into bones and the man had been molded into shape through a suit of skin, everything was over. Why did she still feel so empty, as if nothing had even begun?
As she looked up, her gaze tumbled into the darkness that was the man’s eye sockets: cavernous, soundless, a black hole swallowing all matter. Only then was she reminded that she’d never known what she looked like in his eyes, since all this while, the gaze had been one-sided. Perhaps this was the root of the emptiness. She’d spent so many days in this single studio, received hundreds of views on her posts on Facebook, yet not a single pair of eyes fixated on her in real life.
So her thumb and index fingers bent into two claw machine pincers and neared her eyes. The thin phalanx bones bore into the space between her eyes and eye sockets, tightened, and dragged out her eyeballs. Pitch darkness took over her vision. Her fingers, safeguarding the eyeballs in her palms, searched for direction on the man’s body, guided by the definition of muscle and bodily contours she touched every day. Though she occasionally got lost, the tip of her fingers eventually made their way up to his hollow sockets. Her fingers brought the two small orbs forward to the rim of those openings, and the eyes slipped in without effort.
The moment light poured into her eyes, she saw everything, as well as her finger bones falling. Not just her former hands, but the whole scaffolding of the skeleton in front of her had become a Jenga tower whose crucial block had been pulled away from the bottom; it tipped over and collapsed, breaking into a spattering shower, bones all over the ground.
Before she—now a man—could feel surprised, her only thought was to collect the bones and store them away, just in case there would be online retailers selling bone-assembling products in the future. She wanted to bend down, and it was this desire that made her discover the stiffness in herself. She couldn’t move. The man’s body was, after all, a plastic model coated in a sheet of skin. The situation only rendered her already-stiff self even stiffer. She had become a man who could not move; not only that—her gaze staggered to the bag of men’s clothes she bought—she was now also a naked man who could not move.
Perhaps there had been a warning label on the model’s instruction manual? Perhaps those colleagues who stopped showing up to work had all become plastic mannequins in their own skin, imprisoned at home?
And would the collapse of her old body have crushed the heart that was hiding beneath her ribs? She didn’t know; there was too much she didn’t know, and it all wrung into a silent cry. She wanted to call someone, anyone. Shapeless names darted to and fro in the hollowness of the synthetic body, hitting its walls, rushing to a mouth that could not be opened. She didn’t even have the vocal cords to make sounds with, let alone the fact that there had never been another pair of ears receiving her cries in this apartment, nor another set of eyes paying attention to her ups and downs, her triumphs and failures.
There was only a clutter of broken bones by her feet. The night breeze drifted in, stirring the ruins and rolling out a long, low moan. Someone, anyone, please close the window, she thought. My bones are scattering, and I’m cold. So cold.